Thomas Paine is today cited by some as one of our "Forefathers", but he was never elected to public office, he may have been one of the first communists in the country, he spent much time in prison for real crimes, and he died as a traitor to the United States. His legacy was: "He had lived long, did some good and much harm". He had no formal education and was divorced twice before coming to the US. He lived in poverty most of his life, relying mostly on government grants and subsidies to sustain himself. None of his business plans and only a few of his writings succeeded. Not even the plan to bury him "with honor" in England succeeded because his bones were lost on their way from his grave in New York to England and never found.
His ramblings about religion fail to show whether he was an atheist, a deist, or a Christian. If he didn't know, then certainly we don't know.
He was convicted of treason and fled to France where he was convicted of and imprisoned for a similar crime. While in prison in France he wrote part of "Age of Reason", which is a truly mixed up screed. He occasionally makes almost valid points, but to follow his "reason" you have to ignore many easily verifiable facts about Christianity. It is childish, at best, and ignorant at worst. His call for government sponsored popular education, relief of the poor, pensions for aged people, and public works for the unemployed [read: communism] were rightly rejected by our Forefathers who established free enterprise and free exercise of religion instead.
Encyclopaedia Britannica, page 868 Paine, Thomas
Thomas Paine, political journalist, patriot, and champion
of the rights of the common man, first achieved fame
with the pamphlet "Common Sense," a stirring plea for
American independence. Other works that gained him his
reputation as one of the greatest political pamphleteers in
history were "The American Crises" papers, which re-
juvenated the dispirited Continental Army; Rights of
Man, a defense of the French Revolution and of republi-
can principles; and The Age of Reason, an exposition of
the place of religion in society.
By courtesy of the Thomas Paine
National Historical Association
Paine, portrait by John Wesley Jarvis. In the
Thomas Paine Memorial House, New Rochelle,
Life in England and America. Paine was born at Thet-
ford, Norfolk, on January 29, 1737, of a Quaker father
and an Anglican mother. His formal education was mea-
gre, just enough to enable him to master reading, writing,
and arithmetic. At 13 he began work with his father as a
corset maker and then tried various other occupations
unsuccessfully, finally becoming an officer of the excise.
His duties were to hunt for smugglers and collect the
excise taxes on liquor and tobacco. The pay was insuffi-
cient to cover living costs, but he used part of his earnings
to purchase books and scientific apparatus.
Paine's life in England was marked by repeated failures.
He had two brief marriages. He was unsuccessful or un-
happy in every job he tried. He was dismissed from the
excise office after he published a strong argument in 1772
for a raise in pay as the only way to end corruption in the
service. Just when his situation appeared hopeless, he met
Benjamin Franklin in London, who advised him to seek
his fortune in America and gave him letters of introduc-
Paine arrived in Philadelphia on November 30, 1774.
His first regular employment was helping to edit the
Pennsylvania Magazine. In addition Paine published
numerous articles and some poetry, anonymously or
under pseudonyms. One such article was "African Slav-
ery in America," a scathing denunciation of the African
slave trade, which he signed "Justice and Humanity."
Paine had arrived in America when the conflict between
the colonists and England was reaching its height. After
blood was spilled at the Battle of Lexington and Concord,
April 19, 1775, Paine argued that the cause of America
should not be just a revolt against taxation but a demand
for independence. He put this idea into "Common Sense,"
which came off the press on January 10, 1776. The 50-
page pamphlet sold more than 500,000 copies within a
few months. More than any other single publication,
"Common Sense" paved the way for the Declaration of
Independence, unanimously ratified July 4, 1776.
During the war that followed, Paine served as volunteer
aide-de-camp to General Nathanael Greene. His great
contribution to the patriot cause was the 16 "Crisis"
papers issued between 1776 and 1783, each one signed
"Common Sense." "The American Crisis. Number I,"
published on December 19, 1776, when George Wash-
ington's army was on the verge of disintegration, opened
with the flaming words: "These are the times that try
men's souls." Washington ordered the pamphlet read to
all the troops at Valley Forge.
In 1777 Congress appointed Paine secretary to the Com-
mittee for Foreign Affairs. He held the post until early in
1779, when he became involved in a controversy with
Silas Deane, a member of the Continental Congress,
whom he accused of seeking to profit personally from
French aid to the United States. But in revealing Deane's
machinations, Paine was forced to quote from secret doc-
uments to which he had access as secretary of the Com-
mittee for Foreign Affairs. As a result, despite the truth
of his accusations, he was forced to resign his post.
Paine's desperate need of employment was relieved
when he was appointed clerk of the General Assembly of
Pennsylvania on November 2, 1779. In this capacity he
had frequent opportunity to observe that American
troops were at the end of their patience because of lack of
pay and scarcity of supplies. Paine took $500 from his
salary and started a subscription for the relief of the
soldiers. In 1781, pursuing the same goal, he accompa-
nied John Laurens to France. The money, clothing, and
ammunition they brought back with them were important
to the final success of the Revolution. Paine also appealed
to the separate states to cooperate for the well-being of
the entire nation. In "Public Good" (1780) he included a
call for a national convention to remedy the ineffectual
Articles of Confederation and establish a strong central
government under "a continental constitution."
At the end of the American Revolution, Paine again
found himself poverty stricken. His patriotic writings had
sold by the hundreds of thousands, but he had refused to
accept any profits in order that cheap editions might be
widely circulated. In a petition to Congress endorsed by
Washington, he pleaded for financial assistance. It was
buried by Paine's opponents in Congress, but Pennsylva-
nia gave him ï¿½500 and New York a farm in New Ro-
chelle. Here Paine devoted his time to inventions, concen-
trating on an iron bridge without piers and a smokeless
In Europe: "Rights of Man." In April 1787 Paine left
for Europe to promote his plan to build a single-arch
bridge across the wide Schuylkill River near Philadel-
phia. But in England he was soon diverted from his engi-
neering project. In December 1789 he published anony-
mously a warning against the attempt of Prime Minister
William Pitt to involve England in a war with France
over Holland, reminding the British people that war had
"but one thing certain and that is increase of taxes." But
it was the French Revolution that now filled Paine's
thoughts. He was enraged by Edmund Burke's attack on
the uprising of the French people in his Reflections on
the Revolution in France; and, though Paine admired
Burke's stand in favour of the American Revolution, he
rushed into print with his celebrated answer. Rights of
Man (March 13, 1791). The book immediately created a
sensation. At least eight editions were published in 1791,
and the work was quickly reprinted in America, where it
was widely distributed by the Jeffersonian societies. When
Burke replied, Paine came back with Rights of Man, Part
II, published on February 17, 1792.
What began as a defense of the French Revolution
evolved into an analysis of the basic reasons for discon-
tent in European society and a remedy for the evils of
arbitrary government, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment,
and war. Paine spoke out effectively in favour of republi-
canism as against monarchy, and went on to outline a !
plan for popular education, relief of the poor, pensions i
for aged people, and public works for the unemployed, .
all to be financed by the levying of a progressive income .
tax. To the ruling class Paine's proposals spelled "bloody
revolution," and the government ordered the book
banned and the publisher jailed. Paine himself was indict-
ed for treason, and an order went out for his arrest. But
he was en route to France, having been elected to a seat in
the National Convention, before the order for his arrest
could be delivered. Paine was tried in absence, found
guilty of seditious libel, and declared an outlaw; and
Rights of Man was ordered permanently suppressed.
In France Paine hailed the abolition of the monarchy
but deplored the terror against the royalists, and fought
unsuccessfully to save the life of King Louis XVI, favour-
ing banishment rather than execution. He was to pay for
his efforts to save the King's life when the radicals under
Robespierre took power. Paine was imprisoned from De-
cember 28, 1793, to November 4, 1794, when, with the
fall of'Robespierre, he was released and, though seriously
ill, readmitted to the National Convention.
While in prison, the first part of Paine's Age of Reason
was published (1794), and it was followed by Part II
after his release (1796). Although Paine made it clear
that he believed in a Supreme Being and as a deist op-
posed only organized religion, the work won him a repu-
tation as an atheist among the orthodox. The publication
of his last great pamphlet, "Agrarian Justice" (1797),
with its attack on inequalities in property ownership,
added to his many enemies in establishment circles.
Paine remained in France until September 1, 1802,
when he sailed for the United States. He quickly discov-
ered that his services to the country had been all but
forgotten and that he was widely regarded only as the
world's greatest infidel. Despite his poverty and his physi-
cal condition, worsened by occasional drunkenness, Paine
continued his attacks on privilege and religious supersti-
tions. He died in New York City on June 8, 1809, and
was buried in New Rochelle on the farm given to him by
the state of New York as a reward for his Revolutionary
writings. Ten years later, William Cobbett, the political
journalist, exhumed the bones and took them to England,
where he hoped to give Paine a funeral worthy of his
great contributions to humanity. But the plan misfired,
and the bones were lost, never to be recovered.
At Paine's death most American newspapers reprinted
the obituary notice from the New York Citizen, which
read in part: "He had lived long, did some good and
much harm." This remained the verdict of history for
over a century following his death, but in recent years the
tide has turned: on January 30, 1937, The Times of
London referred to him as "the English Voltaire," and on
May 18, 1952, Paine's bust was placed in the New York
University Hall of Fame.
POLITICAL AND RELIGIOUS: "Common Sense" (1776); "The
American Crisis," 15 pt. (1776-83); "Prospects on the Rubi-
con" (1787); Rights of Man, 2 pt. (1791-92); "Letter Ad-
dressed to the Addressers on the Late Proclamation" (1792);
The Age of Reason, 1 pt. (1794-95); "Dissertation on the
First Principles of Government" (1795); "Letter to George
Washington, President of the United States of America, on
Affairs Public and Private" (1796); "Atheism Refuted"
(1798); "Letters to the Citizens of the United States," 4
letters (dated 1802).
ECONOMIC AND FINANCIAL: "Dissertation on the Affairs of
the Bank" (1786); The Decline and. Fall of the English
System of Finance (1796); "Agrarian Justice" (1797).
BIBLIOGRAPHY. The first comprehensive edition of Paine's
works is that of MONCURE D. CONWAY, The Writings of
Thomas Paine, 4 vol. (1894-96). This has been replaced by
PHILIP s. PONER, The Complete Writings of Thomas Paine,
2 vol. (1945). Several later discoveries of Paine's writings are
in A.O. ALDRIDOE, "Some Writings of Thomas Paine in Pennsyl-
vania Newspapers," American Historical Review, 56:832-838
(1951). RICHARD GIMBEL, Thomas Paine Fights for Freedom
in Three Worlds (1961), offers the best annotated bibliogra-
phy of Paine's works. The first worthwhile biography, though
entirely uncritical, was MONCURE D. CONWAY, The Life of
Thomas Paine, 1 vol. (1892). There is still no full-length
study of Paine that replaces Conway's biography, but a num-
ber of brief studies of the man are more valuable in terms
of an overall evaluation of his contributions. Worth con-
sulting are VERNON L. PARRINGTON, "Tom Paine: Repub-
lican Pamphleteer," in Main Currents in American Thought,
pp. 327-341 (1927); HARRY H. CLAKK'S Introduction to
Thomas Paine: Representative Selections, rev. ed. (1961);
and PHILIP s. FONER'S Introduction to The Complete Writings.
A recent book that helps break down the tradition of the
religious infidel and political demagogue is ROBIN MCKOWN,
Thomas Paine (1962).